Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat, JJ has expressed serious concerns on the ability of the marginalized members of society between the ages of 18-44 years to avail COVID-19 vaccination, exclusively through a digital portal in the face of a digital divide and has said,
“A vaccination policy exclusively relying on a digital portal for vaccinating a significant population of this country between the ages of 18-44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization owing to such a digital divide. It is the marginalized sections of the society who would bear the brunt of this accessibility barrier. This could have serious implications on the fundamental right to equality and the right to health of persons within the above age group.”
CoWIN Portal and how it works
According to the Union of India,
(i) The CoWIN portal enables one person to register 4 persons using the same mobile number;
(ii) All gram panchayats in the country have Common Service Centres which can effectively enable people residing in rural areas to register online for the vaccination;
(iii) Citizens who do not have access to digital resources could take help from family, friends, NGOs and CSCs;
(iv) Walk-ins cannot be permitted due to the scarcity of vaccines and fears of over-crowding at centres. The online registration requirement counters this fear and also effectively monitors the administration of the second dose. The policy may be re-considered subsequently when more vaccines are available;
(v) Identity proofs are required for the purpose of determining age and keeping a track of persons who are due for the second dose. However, in recognizing the issues arising with the insistence of one of the seven prescribed photo-ID proofs, the Central Government issued an SoP dated 23 April 2021 which enables bulk registration of certain identifiable groups, such as homeless persons, who would be identified and registered by the District Immunization Task Force; and
The Centre clarified that walk-in vaccination facilities will continue for persons over the age of 45 years in separate, designated vaccination centres. This is because vaccinations have been underway for this age group for a while and overcrowding has not been experienced so far.
Data, Drawbacks, and the Digital Divide
In the order, where the Court sought clarification from the Centre on various issues relating to the COVID-19 Vaccination policy, it relied on vaiours reports and surveys that highlighted that:
- Around 4% of the rural households and 23% of the urban households possessed a computer. In the age group of 15-29 years, around 24% in rural households and 56% in urban areas were able to operate a computer; and
- Nearly 24% of the households in the country had internet access during the survey year 2017-18. The proportion was 15% in rural households and 42% in urban households. Around 35% of persons in the age group of 15-29 years reported use of internet during the 30 days prior to the date of survey. The proportions were 25% in rural areas and 58% in urban areas.
- Out of the total population of 1.3 billion, only 578 million people in India (less than 50%) have subscription to wireless data services. The wireless tele density in rural areas is 57.13% as compared to 155.49% in urban areas as on 31 March 2019. The report stated that: “[this] reflects the rural-urban divide in terms of telecom services‟ penetration. Since, the number of wireless data subscribers are less than 50% of the total wireless access subscribers, the number of wireless data subscribers in rural areas would be much lower”.
- In a few Indian States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam the tele density is less than 75%; and
- The monthly income of persons living below the poverty line in urban areas and rural areas is Rs 1316 and Rs 896, respectively. However, to access internet data services, a minimum tariff plan would cost around Rs 49, which includes 1 GB data every 28 days. This would constitute 4-5% of the month‟s income of such persons accessing data. As such, the report notes that this would bear a considerable cost for persons living below the poverty line.
- While there are 2,53,134 Gram Panchayats in India, as on 31 March 2020 only 2,40,792 Gram Panchayats are covered with at least one registered Common Service Centres. Hence, approximately 13,000 Gram Panchayats in India do not have a Common Service Centres.
- The CoWIN platform is not accessible to persons with visual disabilities. The website suffers from certain accessibility barriers. These include:
(i) Audio or text captcha is not available;
(ii) The seven filters, which inter alia, include age group, name of vaccine and whether the vaccine is paid or free, are not designed accessibly. This issue can be addressed by creation of a drop-down list;
(iii) While visually challenged persons can determine the number of available vaccine slots, one cannot find out the day those slots correspond to. This can be resolved by ensuring that table headers correspond to associated cells;
(iv) Keyboard support for navigating the website is absent;
(v) Adequate time should be given to disabled users to schedule their appointment without the possibility of being automatically logged off; and
(vi) Accessibility protocols, such as use of appropriate colour contrasts, should be adhered to
“… there exists a digital divide in India, particularly between the rural and urban areas. The extent of the advances made in improving digital literacy and digital access falls short of penetrating the majority of the population in the country. Serious issues of the availability of bandwidth and connectivity pose further challenges to digital penetration.”
Clarifications sought from the Government:
“It may not be feasible to require the majority of our population to rely on friends/NGOs for digital registrations over CoWIN, when even the digitally literate are finding it hard to procure vaccination slots.”
- The issue of over-crowding may also arise at CSCs in rural areas where people would have to visit constantly in hope of a vaccine slot opening up.
- Certain vaccination centres may be earmarked for on-site registrations for the population aged between 18-44 years without the existing conditions prescribed in the circular dated 24 May 2021, potentially with a view to prioritize those with co-morbidities/disabilities/other socio-economic vulnerabilities. Alternatively, whether specific daily quotas may be introduced for on-site registration at each centre or specific centres.
- This policy may not allay the issue of hesitancy which may arise from approaching a State authority (such as the District Immunization Task Force) to obtain registration for the vaccination. Whether on-site registration with selfattestation of age to ensure widespread vaccination can be provided.
- The CoWIN platform and other IT applications like Aarogya Setu should be made available in regional languages. The timeline for ensuring the availability of the platform in multiple regional languages.
- Conducting a disability audit for the CoWIN website and other IT application like Aarogya Setu to ensure that they are accessible to persons with disabilities.
[In re: Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 411, decided on 31.05.2021]
Appearances before the Court
Mr Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General
Mr Jaideep Gupta and Ms Meenakshi Arora, learned Senior counsel and Amici